Interview with Piranha - World Trade Center Site
By Jeff Mottle
CGarchitect Interviewed PIRANHA who was commissioned by Silverstein Properties to create a short film depicting the completion of The New World Trade Center site. Piranha wrote, produced, art directed, filmed, and finished all vfx for this inspiring piece marking the 10 year anniversary of 9/11. It is on display permanently at the marketing center of Tower 7. The Interview was conducted with Director Gaspard Giroud, Creative Director Rob Sabatini and Executive Producer Nate Robinson.
The New World Trade Center from PIRANHA NYC
CGA: Maybe I’ll just start by asking you guys a little bit about your background and how you guys got into the industry.
Gaspard: I was trained as an architect. I went to school in France, in Lyon, and then Paris. Then I came to the US to do a Master in Architecture at Columbia University. Then after I got out of this expensive American school, I was trying to make a living in architecture. I was not the best. I liked working with the computers and using CG’s packages and all.
I got a job working for an advertising company doing visualization for industrial products and advertising for this company called Arnell Group. Then I eased my way into animation and started freelancing in the broadcasting commercial world, and after a few years of that, I met Rob and we started Piranha. The company is two years old.
My background is very much architecture. I used to do a lot of architecture visualization in Paris. I did it for a few architects like Jean Nouvel, Odile Decq – a lot of renderings for a fantastic firm at the time; a very small office called dECOi. dECOi was started by Mark Goulthorpe. He had a small studio, but the quality of the work was very high. I was very lucky to work on several projects that got published all over the place at the time. It was very exciting because it was the early ages of the computer and 3D. It was a lot of experimenting back in the days.
I would say Mark Goulthorpe from dECOi, who now teaches a studio at MIT had a strong influence on me. Some of the renderings we did are still on display at the French Museum of Modern Art. It’s really beautiful experimental work. And he didn’t even have a Xerox machine at the time. Rob will let you know about himself.
CGA: Go for it.
Rob: My background is in design and motion. I went to School of Visual Arts where I got my BFA there, specializing in dynamic media. I graduated there in ’02 – ’03. Then basically I just hit the freelance world as an after-effects artist and compositor. For a good seven years – maybe ten years, actually – I just freelanced all around New York City. All the usual suspects. Anything from network idents to the commercial world and the agency world.
Slowly I guess I gained more and more of my own clients. I was definitely more commercial and network oriented, not anything having to do with architecture. But as I gained more clients I started offering 3D services where I would basically just be like a small little independent shop. That’s how I met Gaspar. I would hire him, actually, to do 3D work when it came in. Then we just put our heads together and formed Piranha. It just made sense.
Actually, I think I find that his attention to detail and architecture and lighting and everything, and my more focus on motion choreography and animation really made a really strong, powerful team when it came to getting stuff done and making it look stunning.
CGA: Given that you guys don’t all come from an architectural background, and I don’t think you label your studio as an architectural visualization studio but more of an agency of sorts I guess, how does that change when somebody comes to you to do architectural work? How does that change your approach? What differentiates you from, say, somebody who exclusively works on architectural visualization?
Gaspar: You mean since the World Trade Center or before that?
CGA: Before that. Any type of work that you might do.
Gaspard: To be completely honest, we were not really trying very hard to be doing architecture visualization, because they’re very hard to make look good, as you know. You’re probably the best person to know that.
It can be easily disappointing, even for us, even if we put a ton of effort into it. I think we got quite lucky with the World Trade Center, because that’s one of these occasions where we put a lot of effort into it, but also the project being located where it is and having the resources that we had at the time made everything come together.
I wouldn’t say we were trying to avoid doing architecture visualization, but it can be a little frustrating. Simulating people, for instance, is very hard. Crowd simulation can be seen only from the distance. Architects have their own agenda, and it’s not always for the best of the visual piece.
Rob: To answer your question, though, I think the fact that we’re diverse in our backgrounds is what helped make the World Trade Center project so visually stunning and set it apart from the standard animations that are out there.
It was always a struggle. I always wanted to push the cameras more and make it more dynamic, and Gaspar was always sitting back more reserved and bring it back to the architectural roots and things like that.
When we sit down and hash these things out, I think we come to compromises that ultimately help set these projects aside from your typical dbox animation or your standard studio animations that you see out there. A lot of that has to do with the color treatment that we did to it. The CG came out of the box; it was beautiful. But then we had to push it even more.
CGA: How much of the work that you did in CG came out of the renderer versus a lot of post work on it?
Rob: Every single shot that came out of CG ended up in the post world. They would render it with several – up to 15-20 different passes.
Gaspard: Nothing comes directly out of the box and is there. It’s been heavily treated in post-production, essentially by Rob, actually.
CGA: Maybe talk a little bit about the World Trade Center project – how you came to get this job and about what the client’s instructions were and what they were trying to achieve with the project.
Gaspard: We got the World Trade Center project because I was hired by SOM at the time for Tower One – the Freedom Tower at the time. I did a couple of renderings. Silverstein Properties – SOM’s client, the developer of the site – contacted SOM and asked for a recommendation for someone to do their animation. That was in 2006.
I got lucky and got recommended by SOM to Silverstein. I did a visualization of the World Trade Center in 2006. It’s all aerial stuff.
It looks a little old now, but they were happy enough – thank God – to hire us again this time around.
The second thing is that when they approached us, they said that they wanted to tell the story of how the World Trade Center has been rebuilt starting from 2006 up until the completion in the future.
They wanted to tell a story of not only how it will be when it’s completely finished, but also how it’s being rebuilt. The first thing they did is they handed us over footage that several people had shot on the construction site. However, the footage really didn’t look good. It was very hard to make it look good, so we convinced the client to shoot it because a lot of it was very documentary style, and we wanted to give this piece the production value of a commercial. That’s what it needed, because it goes into the sales center.
We spent two days on location to shoot the first part, trying to convey a sense of how it’s been rebuilt. We faked it, because we were sort of trying to give the vision that it starts at the beginning of the construction, but really obviously we shot everything this past summer.
CGA: Just from what I saw online, it looks like it’s maybe half and half almost between what was shot on film versus CG.
Gaspard: I believe we got about 120 shots total in this, or at least we processed 120 shots. I’m not sure if we still have 120 shots in the latest edit, the one we published. 40 of them are CG.
Rob: Yeah, about half.
Gaspar: Something else, if you remember the shot with the beams at the very beginning, that’s an entirely CG shot. So you’ve got a couple of shots where the line is blurred between footage and CG.
CGA: And this final piece, I think you alluded to, was being used in a sales center then for the tenants?
Gaspard: Exactly. Silverstein, the developer has just opened a sales center, which is in Tower 7 which is right north of the site, has expansive views to the site. They have huge scale models and they have renderings; they have interactive presentations. And at the end of this you finish by the animation presented on a very large 100inches screen.
CGA: How important was the project’s creative direction to this piece? Were you provided any sort of direction from the client, or was it strictly your treatment?
Gaspard: We didn’t have much creative direction from the client. They reacted as being happy or not happy.
Rob: When they started us, they wanted that whole time-blast feel, because originally we were supposed to work with footage they already had, but then they were not able to get rights to that footage so we had to recreate it.
The only real direction we got from them was they wanted to show the human element and they wanted to show the majesticness of what these buildings would become, and they wanted to visualize the building process. That’s pretty much it. Even some other footage that they had provided that we were able to use, they probably would’ve even been happy with that footage, but we were not. We pushed it further and went and shot it. I think it really fell a lot on Gaspar’s shoulders. He really took the realm of director.
Gaspard: I have to say that, overall, they were not educated to the process. I’ve already said it was a great client because they were pretty happy overall and didn't reject everything we were trying to do. We didn’t struggle much with the client, and we actually have to say thank you to Dara McQuillan, who had comments along the way, but he was supportive of the new directions that we were going for.
CGA: How long were you given to work on the project?
Gaspar: Our proposal was we would complete the project in a two-month span, but we ended up working five months on it.
CGA: Wow. Quite a bit of time.
Rob: It wasn’t steady. I would say maybe three-and-a-half to four months of steady work.
CGA: Was it just you two that worked on the entire project?
Gaspar: No, you can see the credits in the page that we put up for the World Trade Center. We have our in-house CG team.
Gaspard: We have Tommy Allen who did a fantastic job on this project, and we had a few freelancers that we worked with us. Some are close friends. We also have the best and most versatile executive producer with us: Nate Robinson.
Rob: Not to undermine the enormous task it was – basically, Nate Robinson, who’s our producer here, executive producer on the whole job. He organized all the shoots, all the flow and ebb of all the production. It was really a huge undertaking for him as well.
Gaspard: We’d say the core team on this was our executive producer, Nate; Rob and I, the partners; and Tommy Allen.
CGA: How many people work at Piranha in total that didn’t necessarily work on this project?
Gaspard: Typically we have like six people around the office.
Rob: When we hit this job hard, we were pretty much all hands on deck. We’re growing. We really staff up mostly with freelancers when we get really busy.
CGA: What sort of people do you generally bring in from the outside on projects?
Rob: It depends on what it calls for. Obviously with this job we tapped some resources that were familiar with the architectural world and can really, really do beautiful light and texturing and modeling. But when we do other jobs that are more animation-heavy, we bring in more of the animation type. It really depends on where the project is leading us.
CGA: What was the most challenging part of the Trade Center project?
Gaspard: I don’t know if it was challenging, but one of the most tedious tasks was to deal with maybe six architecture firms – four are building each of the towers; two are the landscape architect and the museum architect. Getting the assets and the approval from everyone was very, very…[difficult]
Rob: That’s why I said no small task for Nate, because organizationally, it was all over the place and you really had to bring in the realms – a lot of times, on shoestring budgets. Like throwing together a huge green screen shoot on a shoestring budget, trying to get in a helicopter. Really, this wasn’t a multimillion dollar production. Even though it ends up looking that way, it was not.
Nate: It was a challenge getting the on-site shoot together because there’s a lot of clearances that have to happen to bring out the film crew onto that working site.
And then ultimately, apart from that on the production end of challenges it was really just about deciding the tonality in how we wanted to take it and really representing light and reflections properly to make them feel not CG.
CGA: Given that you were working with so many different architects – and obviously, the security concerns around this site – how difficult was it getting your hands on the blueprints and the assets to actually be able to model and create the CG components of the project?
Gaspard: It was hard, because the architects are already busy building stuff. Even though I had already a relationship with them from 2006 they were somewhat reluctant to give us the information you need, because you’re on outside. They don’t exactly know where it’s going to go, what we’re going to do with it. You really have to beg them. Then you get stuff, you look at it and is a corrupted 3D model or missing a piece. So you start over.
You have to do that with six firms. You can’t really blame them for that, but it was not easy.
CGA: Do you guys have a favorite shot in the whole project?
Rob: We each have our own favorites. I think my favorite is probably the shot with the reflection of the cranes in the glass where you have this big, beautiful green tree on the left.
CGA: I remember that shot.
Rob: The way the reflections got composited and the color and the overall realism of it, I thought it was just really cool. It struck me.
CGA: How about you, Gaspard?
Gaspadr: There’s a shot that’s looking straight down at the Port Authority Hub. It has a comb shape, the Calatrava Hub.
Gaspard: It’s a shot that looks straight down at Greenwich Street, and it’s between the new park and the Hub. I think that shot is very beautiful.
Rob: It’s the one with all the crowd simulation going on.
CGA: I know the shot. Given the nature of this project and what it represents, was this a rewarding project for you guys to work on? It sounds like, Rob, maybe you’re from New York.
Rob: Yeah, I grew up here. It was touching. It was really touching to go down there too, when we were scouting the locations and things like that. It was kind of eerie to be there. Being in the world that I’m in, in the commercial world, I got do to a bunch of stuff having to do with 9/11 in these past years, even – in the past ten years.
I did a thing for Madison Square Garden Network called the “Concert for New York Remembered” that actually won an Emmy for the art direction.
So, for me, it felt like we were finally getting over the destruction that was there and moving on. It was refreshing and touching.
CGA: Gaspard, were you in New York during 9/11?
Gaspard: I was in New York. I was actually not very far, at the time I was working for that advertising company on Prince Street. I was walking there from Canal Street.
I think it is actually more rewarding now after we finished it. Sometimes walking around the city I look at Tower One that starts to stick out of the skyline: it starts to look like the CG!
Rob: I drive in from Long Island every day, and every day on the BQE I look up at Tower One and I just imagine it going in time lapse, like our video.
Gaspard: I don’t think we actually realized it, all of us – at least, not for me – because we got into the project from the work perspective. A little bit of a tunnel vision there. But going on the site and seeing how it’s been rebuilt, and feeling that we bring our small contribution to the reconstruction of downtown New York was great. We enjoyed working with Silverstein and the team that hired us: their determination and passion for the project is undeniable. We where happy to help in that regard.
Rob: Yeah, definitely.
Gaspard: Larry Silverstein, doesn’t need to work, but the passion and the effort he puts into it at 80 years old, you want to pay respect to that.
When you’re in this meeting with them, they’re very passionate about what they’re doing. You don’t necessarily have to approve what the projects are, but I think they are certainly trying to do the best they possibly can in this extremely entangled situation with diverse interests and world class technical challenges.
CGA: What software and hardware did you guys end up using on this project?
Gaspard: For the CG, it was mostly 3ds Max, V-Ray, Combustion, fluid simulation software. Anima was used for crowd simulation. We have BOXX computers, and we have a render farm that’s also mostly BOXX computers.
CGA: Do you usually render most of your projects in-house or do you have to send them out, depending on size?
Gaspard: We tend to render everything in-house, unless we’re crushed by the deadline.
Rob: Software that was used, like he said, was 3ds Max, V-Ray. A little bit of Real Flow to do some water stuff. Then as far as the compositing software, it was like 98% After Effects, all After Effects compositing. Then we had to use NUKE in a few scenarios that After Effects couldn’t handle. But it never saw a flame, which was pretty cool. And then it was edited in Avid.
CGA: How was all the film shot?
Rob: It was shot on a Red, so it was all shot at 4K, including the aerial stuff too. Gaspard got into the helicopter, and we brought in some super-talented DPs and veteran helicopter pilots. I think the guy was, the previous week, shooting the new Spiderman. Then we snuck in there.
Gaspard: Al Cerullo shoots pretty much every big blockbuster film on the East Coast.
CGA: Did you shoot all the helicopter footage out the door or was it bottom mounted on an stabilization rig?
Gaspard: We shot twice. The first time we filmed with a mounted gyroscope. The camera is underneath the nose of the helicopter. We had a problem with the footage and were not happy with the quality. We shot a second time and we shot out of the door. Yeah. The footage needed some serious stabilization in post.
Rob: Yeah. I forgot. We actually had to track the footage.
Gaspard: We had to track the footage and also stabilize. Rob stabilized all the aerial shots. The aerial shot looks very steady, but that’s not at all how it came out of the box. They came out very shaky even though we used a Tyler mount.
CGA: I guess it was advantageous that it was shot at 4k in that case.
Rob: Very much so.
CGA: What sort of projects do you guys have on the horizon now? Do you have more architectural projects in the pipe?
Gaspard: No. Actually, it’s been a little quiet since then. It was good for us to be able to regroup.
Rob: Actually, right as that finished we jumped into another job for Verizon where we did a two-minute video for them – I think it’s on our website now – for their developer’s conference.
Then we just have some more commercial work on the horizon. We’ve actually been approached by a few people in the commercial world. We actually did a job for Time Warner since then to do a building, to actually do a CG building in one of their spots, which is kind of funny. We’re architecture meets commercial world now.
CGA: Do you find that’s happening a lot more? I’ve noticed a lot of commercials as of late that have a lot of architectural components, even though they wouldn’t be considered architectural visualization pieces.
Rob: Exactly. We ended up having to create a whole building composite in just so they can get an outside shot to come into a window for this Time Warner job. It’s pretty funny. It really stemmed out of them seeing the World Trade Center job. Kind of cool.
CGA: Is the architectural work something that you guys are looking to do more of in the future, or just more of the commercial side?
Rob: Especially when they want to give us the creative freedoms and let us really take it to that higher quality level than the standard architecture stuff you see every day.
Gaspard: I think the tools are getting there. Compared to a few years back, it’s getting a little more feasible to get fairly good architectural representation in moving images. People have been doing absolutely fantastic stills for a while. But achieving high-quality in film or animation was hard. It’s probably getting a little easier in the past few years.
CGA: On that note, what allows a story to come through in a project like this? A lot of people will do an architectural film, but it’s just a walkthrough. What separates that from being able to tell an effective story?
Rob: An amazing director.
Gaspard: No, I’m not entirely sure.
Rob: I think the human element that we had in here really helped it. And also, it’s a progression. The buildings are not there, and they’re being built. It’s not like we’re just flying through. We’re showing a task being completed. That helped it.
Gaspard: Alex Roman did. he was capable of doing a fantastic job just visiting empty buildings with slow-moving cameras. So there is no recipe.
Rob: I don’t necessarily thing his stuff is story. It’s more just visual.
Gaspard: Right, we tried something different and attempted to create a visual story about the reconstruction, more like a peaceful action packed piece.
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